Hey, Let’s All Revive Victorian-Style Ghost Hunting, Whadaya Say?

The second season of Tales Told When the Windows Rattle begins on Friday. I open by reading Catherine Crowe’s account of a ghost hunt she conducted, a memoir included in her Ghosts and Family Legends: A Volume for Christmas (1859). By the time this book was released, Crowe was famous for The Night Side of Nature; Or, Ghosts and Ghost Seers (1848), her remarkable compendium of reputedly true reports of paranormal phenomena, specters prominent among them.

Ghosts and Family Legends is perfect for Tales Told because of the way Crowe introduces it. She explains that, as 1857 was drawing to a close, she was a guest “in a large country mansion, in the north of England.” The visitors were enjoying a variety of activities, when “a serious misfortune” altered the mood. They gathered around “the drawing-room fire, where we fell to discussing the slight tenure by which we hold whatever blessings we enjoy, and the sad uncertainty of human life. . . .” However, the topic drifted. Crowe explains:

In short, we began to tell ghost stories; and although some of the party professed an utter disbelief in apparitions, they proved to be as fertile as the believers in their contributions. . . . The substance of these conversations fills the following pages, and I have told the stories as nearly as possible in the words of the original narrators. 

If you know my Tales Told series, you know that it is likewise intended to capture something of the centuries-old tradition of sharing gripping stories by an alluring fire during wet or cold weather.

Francesco Bergamini - Focolaio domestico
Focolaio domestico, by Francesco Bergamini (1851-1900; date of painting unknown)

When Crowe’s turn to tell a tale arrives, she narrates her experience of leading a paranormal investigation. It’s fairly representative of Victorian ghost hunts, through I suspect it might’ve had more surprises than was typical. One of the things that intrigues me is the use of a mesmerized clairvoyant to perceive the kinds of things that 21st-century ghost hunters trust to electronic gadgets.

Gizmo-based ghost hunting has never appealed to me, but that’s entirely on me. I can barely get my TV remote to work, and I’ve only recently mastered my iPod. Yes, the notion of a ghost hunter’s bag containing a good novel, a bottle of brandy, and probably a few cigars has greater charm for me than anything involving batteries or wires or even an on-off switch. A loyal beagle by my side is preferable to night-vision googles around my head. Call me old-fashioned.

Maybe, along with the current movement to revitalize the tradition of fireside ghost stories, there should be a push to reexperience Victorian-style ghost hunting. In a way, the Victorian approach to ghost hunting might be better understood as ghost fishing. The serenity of waiting is at least as pleasurable as the thrill of catching. (And did I mention the brandy?) I imagine a lot of people would happily climb onboard that bass boat.

In the meantime, you can subscribe to the Tales Told YouTube channel here.

— Tim


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